Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone

Eleven year old Felicity Bathburn Budwig isn’t really happy about being transplanted from her parent’s flat in London to her grandmother’s coastal house in Bottlebay, Maine because of the blitz in 1941. To begin with, her grandmother, known as The Gram, and her father’s brother and sister, Uncle Gideon and Aunt Miami, are all angry at her dad Danny and her English mom Winnie, and Felicity doesn’t know why. And they are a strange bunch. Aunt Miami (really named Florence, but that has no 'pizazz') is obsessed with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; Uncle Gideon has a weird sense of humor and is up to something very secretive; The Gram simply rules with a kind but iron hand.

Then, Felicity, or Flissy as The Gram immediately nicknames her, is told she must never go into a certain locked room nor is she to disturb a mysterious person called Captain Derek, locked away in his own room, until he is ready to come out.

Gradually, however, Flissy begins to adjust to the strange Blackburn household and even begins to like it. Until one day when a mysterious letter arrives, postmarked from Portugal but definitely written by her father. What is he doing in Portugal? He is supposed to be in London with Winnie. And why did Uncle Gideon immediately take this letter and go into the forbidden-to-enter room. And each time one of these letters arrives, he does the same thing, but then Flissy notices that he would later cross the beach outside the house and disappear. A mystery indeed and she is determined to get to the bottom of it.

By now, Flissy also has an accomplice. The elderly sea captain she imagined behind the closed door turns out to be a boy named Derek, a little older than she is, who had been quarantined while he was being treated for an apparently mild case of polio. It has caused him to lose the ability to use his left and so he is reluctant to leave his room or go out in public. When another letter arrives from Portugal and Uncle Gideon goes into his mysterious room with it, Flissy talks Derek into pretending he needs help and crying out for his uncle. The hope is that Uncle Gideon will come running, forgetting to lock the door and Flissy can sneak in a see the letter.

The plan works but Flissy and Derek are no closer to knowing anything – the letter is written in code - nothing but a bunch of numbers. They spend the rest of the summer trying to work out the code. They do find out where Uncle Gideon goes after receiving a letter when they successfully follow – the problem here is that you need a boat to get to the small lighthouse island he rows to. And they do manage to talk the mailman into taking them over one day, so that they are finally able to solve one part of the mystery.

But then the letters from Portugal stop coming, and both Flissy and Uncle Gideon are worried about that. Has something happened to her parents? Now, Flissy is more determined than ever to solve the mystery of the number code.  But how?

While all this is going on, Flissy finds out that Aunt Miami has won a raffle she that she had carelessly entered aunt’s name in. The prize is 20 minutes of stage time at the town’s talent and variety show. The problem is that even though Aunt Miami constantly performs Romeo and Juliet at home, she has terrible stage fright.

The Romeo and Juliet Code is a fun mystery in the same vein as a Nancy Drew book, and being a big Nancy fan, I liked that about this book. The mystery is there to solve, but there is never any danger to Flissy or Derek. But as much as it is a mystery, it is also a book the impact of the Second World War on one 11 year old evacuee. Not only must she adjust to a whole new way of life, but also to people she doesn’t know, even if they are relatives, far away from home, parents and everything else that was comforting and familiar. It is the same adjustment thousands of evacuated children were asked to make, and it wasn’t always easy.

Phoebe Stone poignantly and repeatedly portrays the three coping mechanisms that Felicity uses to help her adjust and to keep hold of the life she had with her parents in London and to keep her fear for them under control.

The first of these coping mechanisms is writing letters to her parents, but without an address to mail them to, she simply keeps them together in a box. Yet the simple act of expressing herself helps Flissy feel more connected to them and enables her to safely express her fears for and frustrations at them.

Her second coping mechanism is, of course, Wink. Even though she is 11 and too old for a teddy bear, Felicity has brought him with her to Maine. The reader learns how she feels when she talks about how Wink feels: “But Wink wasn’t listening. He was crying instead, because there were so many secrets here, and everything seemed so odd, making him feel like a bear without a country. He felt he didn’t belong anywhere.” (pg 65)

And Felicity’s third coping mechanism is constantly reminding herself how British children behave: “British children are usually very brave. I saw many, many of them getting on trains in London, waving good-bye to the mums and dads, going alone to the countryside to get away from the bombs. And yet most of them didn’t cry.” (pg 75)

The other advantage to these coping mechanisms is it allows the author to easily provide a lot of background information that helps move the story along. But I did wonder what kinds coping mechanisms kids really did utilize during the war.

The Romeo and Juliet Code was recommended to me by Anamaria at Books Together and I’m glad she did, otherwise I would have passed it up. I would have assumed it was a more contemporary story because of the pink All Star type sneakers on the cover, which wasn’t a happening thing back in those days. But aside from this little mistake, The Romeo and Juliet Code is definitely not a book to be missed.

This book is recommended for readers age 9 – 12.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

Monday, June 27, 2011

An Award - Wow!

I have been tagged for this lovely award by both Kathy at Books Kids Like and Barbara at March House Books Blog, so I would like to thank both of them.

These are the rules for accepting this award:
1. Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
2. Share seven random facts about yourself.
3. Pass the award along to 15 deserving blog buddies.
4. Contact those buddies to congratulate them.

The 7 random facts about myself are:
1- I always wear my socks inside out because the seam at the toe annoys me so much
2- I am a devoted 'deadhead'
3- I am ambidextrous
4- I firmly believe that all desserts should have chocolate in them otherwise it is just stuff (my 8 year old niece thinks this is pretty funny, but agrees)
5- My mother always told me that Trouble was my middle name and I think she was right.
6- I love charm bracelets
7- My favorite thing to do is sit at the of the seashore and read a book (once I was reading Samuel Beckett and was so engrossed, I didn't see the wave that hit me.  My book still smells like the Atlantic Ocean)

Other Deserving Blog Buddies:


Storied Cities

History for Children

SmallWorld Reads

Books in the City

The BookBagLady

The Broke and the Bookish

Jean Little Library

Playing by the Book

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Giveaway: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

As a child, Jacob Portman had always loved his grandfather’s stories. Abe Portman seemed to be able to spin takes that were mesmerizing about growing up in a children’s home on Cairnholm Island off the coast of Wales after escaping from the Nazis. There, the residents of the children's home become a kind of second family for him. And with his stories, were photographs – strange photos of the other kids in the home. It was all very magical to young Jacob.

But at 16, Jacob witnesses his grandfather’s murder at the hands of what appears to be something indescribable. When he falls into a serious depression, his parents send him to Dr. Golan for help. And therapy does seem to help, at least enough that Dr. Golan supports Jacob's idea to go the Carinholm with his dad and to see things for himself.

Once there, Jacob finds the children’s home, but it is deserted, with a big hole in the middle. During the war, the house had been hit by a bomb and it was said that everyone who lived there was instantly killed.

But where they really all dead? Jacob doesn’t think so.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a thrilling adventure tale, a fantasy, a time travel story about people with extraordinary abilities. It is funny and eerie and unexpected. Ransom Riggs (great name) has written a strange kind of family history complete with what could be called a family album using found photos to enhance his tale.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is definitely fun in a Gaimanesque kind of way, so much so that I have decided to give my copy away to a reader looking for an adventure.

To enter this giveaway:
1. You must be a follower of The Children’s War
2. You should leave a comment here to officially enter
3. Please provide some way to contact you (blog or email, etc.)
Additional Info:
1. This giveaway ends one week from today (June 30 2011 at 11:59 p.m. EST)
2. Winner be chosen by
3. Winner be announced and contacted on July 1st

This giveaway is unfortunately open to US residents only (thanks to the ridiculously high international mailing costs of the USPO)

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Cay by Theodore Taylor

Living on the Dutch island of Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela, 11 year old Phillip Enright thinks it is very exciting when the World War II finally arrives there in February 1942. Packs of German U-Boats start blowing up the island’s oil refineries and sinking ships carrying much needed oil to England. Then he and his friend Henrik witness a ship hit by a torpedo and watch as it burns and sinks with not survivors. Frightened but curious, Phillip tries to talk to his dad about the war, but his mother stops the questions and announces that she wants to take him back home to Virginia.

Dismayed and angry, Phillip gets ready to leave after his father procures passage on a ship for him and his mother. His father must remain in Curacao for his job with Royal Dutch Shell for the duration of the war.

Phillip and his mother set sail on the SS Hato one morning in the beginning of April, Things go well until early in the morning on April 6th, when the ship is torpedoed by German U-Boats. Although safely together in a lifeboat, Philip and his mother get separated when the ship suddenly lurches and starts to quickly sink.

The next thing Philip is conscious of is waking up on a raft with a terrible headache, an elderly West Indian crew member named Timothy and the cat belonging to the ship’s cook, Stew Cat. Philip’s mother has always told him that black people are inferior to whites, to avoid them and to not trust them. Now he finds himself on a raft in the middle of the Caribbean and quickly realizes that his survival completely depends on this one man. His mother’s words seem to ring true when Timothy sparingly doles out their supply of fresh water and biscuits despite Philip' demand that he be given more. So the first thing Philip leans about Timothy is that he can be very wise and very kind, but very stubborn when it comes to doing what is necessary to survive.

After a few days, Philip’s eyesight begins to fade and by the time Timothy spots an island they can get to, he is completely blind. Now, more dependent on Timothy than ever, at first Philip is reluctant to do anything to help set up a camp for themselves on highest part of the island.

Eventually, however, this unlikely pair form a good working relationship. Timothy fashions a cane and braids some vines together to form a rope that Philip can use to guide himself down to the beach. And Timothy is a intelligent and patient teacher, as he prods Philip into actually doing things that, though difficult because of his blindness, will ensure his survival later on. Philip learns how to weave sleeping mats, how to fish and, with some convincing, how to climb a coconut tree to supplement their fish diet.

Their one point of contention is Stew Cat. Timothy thinks the cat is bad luck, but Philip has grown attached to the cat. One morning, he wakes up to find that Timothy and Stew Cat are gone. Philip heads to the beach and discovers that their raft is also gone. When Timothy returns later that day, he won’t answer questions about the cat or the raft, and Philip begins to fear the worst. Then he hears hammering, after which Timothy goes down to the beach. On the roof of the hut, Philip discovers that Timothy had carved a Stew Cat out of wood to end their bad luck. When Timothy returns, he has the real Stew Cat with him, alive and well.

The Cay is a small but powerful book. It was written in 1969, and is dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King and was the work Taylor was proudest of. Philip’s blindness is symbolic of how Taylor would like us to see all people; in other words, it was Taylor’s intention to show through Timothy that the value of a person is not found in the color of their skin, but who they are as a human being. And Philip eventually does overcome the prejudice his mother had instilled in him:
Timothy breathed softly beside me. I had now been with him every moment of the day and night for two months, but I hand not seen him. I remembered that ugly welted face. But now, in my memory, it did not seem ugly at all. It seemed only kind and strong.
I asked, “Timothy, are you still black?”
His laughter filled the hut. (pg 100)
Taylor received the following well deserved awards for The Cay:
1969 Award of the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People
1970 The Lewis Carroll Shelf Award
1970 Jane Adams Book Award
1970 Commonwealth Club of California
1971 Kansas William White Award
A New York Times Best Book of the Year
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
A Boston Globe—Horn Book Honor Book
An ALA Notable Book
A Publishers Weekly Children’s Book to Remember

However, these awards were not without controversy. Criticism of Taylor’s portrayal of Timothy as “a superstitious, subservient stereotype who spoke in comical Creole dialect” resulted in The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom asking Taylor to return the 1970 Jane Adams Book Award. Taylor returned the award but insisted that “’The Cay’ was "a subtle plea for better race relations and more understanding." (Quotes are from Taylor’s obituary in the New York Sun)
The book went to be become a favorite of both readers and teachers and has been in print continuously since 1969.
The Cay is a book well worth reading, but, be warned, it is a real tearjerker.

This book is recommended for readers age 9-12.
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL

Random House has a very useful Teacher’s Guide on their website.
Useful classroom activities may also be found at The Cay

More information on the author of The Cay can be found at the author's website Theodore Taylor

*A cay is defined as a low elevated small island formed out of sand and coral reefs. A cay is sometimes called a key.

A useful map for using when reading The Cay

Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer Reading

When I tell people that my blog focuses on books written for kids and teens that are set in World War II, their initial response is always “Are there really that many books about it?” My answer, to their surprise, is “Yes, there are that many and each looks at that long, terrible war in a different way.”

And now that schools are beginning to get out and summer vacations are starting, the bookshops have all put out their Summer Reading displays. I was browsing around my local store the other day, looking to see what was new and exciting to read. As I looked over the reading table that had books that met summer reading requirements for students, I noticed that among the books was more that just a smattering of World War II stories, some of which are old standards, along with others that are relatively new. 

Fiction (for MG and YA readers):
The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Missing in Action by Dean Hughes
The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Under the Blood Red Sky by Graham Salisbury
Milkweed by Jerry Spinnelli
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; the Definitive Edition by Anne Frank

On another display table were books for older readers.  Among them were

Fiction (for teens and adult readrs):
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre This is an interesting story that I first heard of when I reviewed Strange but True Stories of World War II by George Sullivan. I am really looking forward to reading this new book now.
Unbroken: a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
Children and Fire by Ursula Hegi

There were actually other World War II books on display, but they were more of a military nature, not really the kind of books that appeal to most teens or even young adults or me, for that matter. And non-fiction doesn’t seem to fare as well as fiction for younger readers either. I have also noticed this whenever I look for books for Non-Fiction Monday.

Stories about World War II show us the best of humanity and the worst. They do not purport to answer the big questions about this war; rather, each book gives us a window though which we can witness the world at that time and hope that they make enough of an impression on readers so that this history does not repeat itself ever again.

What are you going to read this summer?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall

The Machine Gunners is Robert Westall’s first novel about World War II. It is set in the town of Garmouth, a seaside town in northern England. Though fictional, it is modeled on Tynemouth, the town where Westall grew up during the war.

The novel begins the morning after an air-raid. Before school starts, Chas (Charles) McGill, 14, goes off to collect souvenirs, things like bits of shrapnel or incendiary bomb fins from the raid. Chas has the second best collection in school, so when he stumbles upon the engines of a German plane, he thinks he has hit pay dirt, until he discovers that one has been claimed by a boy and the other engine is being guarded by the Constable Fatty Hardy, who starts chasing him.

Running off, Chas heads for a wood, where he knows he can hide and as luck would have it, he finds the rest of the German plane. Not only that, but the plane’s machine gun is still there and intact. Thinking it would be quite a souvenir, Chas tries to detach it, until he realizes that the pilot is still in the cockpit. The sight of the dead pilot shakes Chas up, but he runs off only because he realizes he needs to get to school.

After school, Chas and his friends “Cem” (short for Cemetery, his dad is the local undertaker) Jones and Audrey Parton return to the wood to retrieve the machine gun. Taking turns sawing it off, they finally free the gun and sneak it out of the wood up the leg of Cem’s Guy Fawkes effigy.* They get caught in an air-raid by Chas’ father, who takes the Guy and puts it in his greenhouse for safe keeping. The next morning Chas hides the machine gun in an old drain pipe. A few days later, Cem tells Chas he had returned to the plane and found four thousand rounds of ammunition clips for the gun.

Out of necessity, the group has grown to include Chas, Cem, Audrey, “Clogger” Duncan, a boy from Scotland sent to live with his aunt, a redheaded boy named Carrot Juice and Nicky. The fortress is being put together quite nicely when Nicky’s house is destroyed in an air-raid and the authorities think he has been crushed to death in the debris. Nicky decides to “stay dead” and hide so that he won’t be sent away. Clogger, unhappy living with his aunt, decides to move into the fortress with Nicky.

After the fortress is finished, the kids spend their free time watching out for German planes. When one finally appears, Chas starts shooting the machine gun, missing it but scaring the pilot into making an error and causing the plane to be brought down by anti-aircraft. The rear gunner, Sergeant Rudi Gerlath, manages to parachute out of the plane just before it explodes. Injured, he is force to spend a week hiding out in a rabbit hutch on a victory garden allotment, eating frozen Brussels sprouts he finds growing there. When he is finally able, he wanders about, wondering what to do. Cold and tired, he eventually finds the fortress, wraps himself up in the blankets he finds there and falls asleep.

When the kids to find Rudi, the first thing they do is take his gun away.  Disappointed that Rudi doesn’t look like the Nazis in films, the kids hold him prisoner anyway. And, after a while, seeing that Rudi is not in good shape, they begin taking care of him. After they discover he knows some English, they begin to get pretty comfortable with each other, hanging out, keeping watch and reading comic books. Living in the fortress with Clogger and Nicky, Rudi realizes, is a good place - it's warm, comfortable and there is always food to eat.
But the attack on his plane leaves the machine gun broken and it doesn’t take Chas long to figure out that Rudi could fix it. Rudi really doesn’t want to do this, but Chas makes a deal – they will provide Rudi with a sail boat he can use to escape to Norway if he fixes the machine gun.

Official explanation for ringing church bells to
indicate an invasion is underway
 Rudi puts off doing this for as long as possible, but one night there is another raid. This one is the worst Garmouth has had to date. Suddenly, the church bells could be heard tolling, the signal that the Germans were invading England. The kids race to their fortress to defend themselves. Chas tells Rudi the time has come to fix the machine gun. Believing the Germans are invading helps Rudi overcome his reluctance at letting the kids have such a powerful gun. When he finishes, they take him down to the harbor and give him the promised boat. Rudi soon realizes he hasn’t got enough strength to get to sail to Norway and returns to the fortress. But, unbeknownst to him and the kids, the tolling church bells had been a false alarm and the kids are reported missing. Now, Constable Fatty Hardy enlists members of the Free Polish Army to help look for them. The kids see them in foreign looking uniforms and believe Fatty Hardy is a quisling and the Polish soldiers are German.  Needless to say, chaos reigns supreme from this point on, with a bit of a surprise ending.

Robert Westall wrote one of my favorite World War II novels, Blitzcat. There, he gave us an endearing kitty that changed lives of those she came into contact with as she traveled across southern England searching for her one true owner, who is serving in the army. In The Machine Gunners, Chas does not have that same endearing quality, even though he has the same single minded focus on getting his machine gun to work. Yet, looking past his selfishness, Chas is really just a scared 13 year old trying to make a safe, secure place for himself in a world at war, where the next bomb could be the one that destroys your whole life.

This book is recommended for readers ages 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

Robert Westall received the following well-deserved awards for The Machine Gunners:
1975 CILIP Carnegie Medal
1975 Runner-up Guardian Award
1977 Boston Globe Horn Book Award Honor Book
1989 Preis der Leseratten 1989
2007 Carnegie Medal 70th Anniversary 2007 Top Ten

For more information on the war in Tynemouth, including a section devoted to Robert Westall and The Machine Gunners (at the bottom of the page), please see North Shields 173
There is a wonderful tribute to Robert Westall, who passed away in 1993, at Remembering Robert Westall

And parts of Robert Westall’s archives, including information about the controversy about bad language and violence surrounding The Machine Gunners when it was first published, may be found online at Seven Stories

*Guy Fawkes – part of a plot by English Catholics in Protestant England to blow up Parliament, Fawkes was caught under the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder on November 5, 1605. He was executed along with others in on the plan. In Britain, kids make an effigy of Guy, called “the Guy” and carrying him around the street begging for a penny for the Guy. On bonfire night, November 5, the Guy is tossed on top of the bonfire and burned and fireworks are set off, bought with the pennies collected. I remember my dad telling me about Guy Fawkes and Bonfire when he was a boy in Wales.

This is book 8 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette
This is book 9 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Primary Sources Teaching Kit World War II by Sean Price

I found this thin book while looking for something else in the library and pulled it from the shelf to look at it. It turned out to be a unique type of activity book for teaching grades 4-8 about the Second World War.

The book relies on primary source documents for relating to the war.  The book suggests that a teacher using this workbook begin by teaching students the difference between a primary and a secondary source document. The benefits of using primary sources for students is that as they learn how to interpret what they are looking at they become active historians rather than simply passive receivers of information (and usually someone else’s interpretation of history.)

The first part of the book contains teaching note on the various areas to be looked at, including teaching suggestions. This is followed by a reproducible page (see example below) that the students can use for evaluating each document they use.

The rest of the book contains the also reproducible primary source documents (see example below), beginning with pages from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, his plan for Germany written before he seized power.  Using Hitler's book is something I have never seen before in other workbooks, but I think it is important to understand an enemy and how he thinks.  Other topics covered are the Hitler Youth, movies and songs of the time, Auschwitz, and Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy speech, including his handwritten changes and corrections.

This workbook also includes a timeline, a glossary and two reproducible world maps and a wonderful K-W-L chart for students use.

The real value of this book lies in the teacher’s ability to go beyond what is covered and include topics of their choice, while still using the basic ideas and document evaluation page. This also means that the teacher can use it with older students who are ready for more complex topics of the war.

I really liked this book when I found it. I think most students enjoy history much more when they are actively engaged with it. I know my own imagination really took off when I saw this useful workbook.

Primary Sources Teaching Kit World War II was published by Scholastic in 2004 and may not be easy to purchase, but can certainly be gotten through a school’s or public library’s InterLibraryLoan program.

This book is recommended for readers age 10-14
This book was borrowed from the Mid-Manhattan branch of the NYPL

Non-fiction Monday is hosted this week by Books Together

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Weekend Cooking #11: Peach Cobbler To Celebrate My 1st Blogoversary

Happy 1st Blogoversary

Today is my 1st Blogoversary. Normally to celebrate occasions, I would prefer a chocolate devil’s food cake with some nice confectioner’s sugar icing on it. But it is June and the peaches are delicious, so a nice summer Peach Cobbler seemed the way to go, and it is scrumptious. The recipe comes from a really exceptional cookbook called How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food by Mark Bittman and can be found on page 630 (listed under Blueberry Cobbler)

Peach Cobbler

4 – 6 cups of slices peaches, washed and well dried
1 cup sugar, or to taste
8 tbsp (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for greasing the pan
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 egg
½ tsp vanilla extract

Optional: cinnamon and nutmeg to taste.

1- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Toss the fruit with half the sugar, and spread it in a slightly puttered 8 inch square or 9 inch round baking pan.

2- Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, ½ cup sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg in the container of a food processor and pulse once or twice. Add the butter and process for 10 seconds, until the mixture is well blended. By hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

3- Drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls, do not spread it out. Bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35 to 45 minutes. Serve immediately.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post at Beth Fish Reads

PS At the bottom of my sidebar is my new puppy, Sparky.  He's really friendly, so you can play with him.  He loves to fetch his red ball and to get him to sit, double-click your mouse near your dog.  Double-click again and he will to lie down. Then hold your mouse button down and make a circular motion to tell him to roll over (he never does that for me.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Homefront by Doris Gwaltney

Homefront begins in the summer of 1940 and the war in Europe hasn’t yet really effected the Motley family very much on their farm in rural Virginia. Older brother Johnny works on the farm with his dad, eldest daughter Elizabeth is preparing to go off to college, new 7th grader Margaret Ann will finally have a room of her own, instead of sharing one with her grandmother, and twins Paige and Polly are looking forward to finally starting school.

Margaret Ann no sooner gets settled in her new room, when it is taken away from her. Her cousin Courtney and her Aunt Mary Lee will be coming to live with the Motley family to get away from the Blitz in London, where they live. Margaret Ann is, quite naturally, resentful at losing her room to a cousin she has never met and the situation only gets worse when Courtney arrives.

Margaret Ann takes an immediate dislike to Courtney, but she’s the only one. Courtney is sweet, charming, and helpless. Everyone feels sorry for her and treats her in a very special way because of the war and because her father is off flying in the RAF. Even Bobby Holland, Margaret Ann’s best friend, seems to be falling under Courtney’s spell. And she is able to make friends with all the popular girls at school who have always ignored Margaret Ann because she isn’t a town girl.

It seems like things can’t get much worse for Margaret, but then on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor is attacked and the United States enters the war. Elizabeth announces that she is going to marry her boyfriend Tommy Gray at Christmas just before he leaves for the army. Then, Johnny runs off to join the navy, bequeathing his room to Margaret Ann, who is racked with guilt over this. If she hadn’t complained so much about losing Elizabeth’s room, maybe he would have stayed home.

By summer, Elizabeth is pregnant and Margaret Ann’s grandmother is beginning to have very noticeable memory lapses. In late August 1941, after news arrives from England that Courtney’s father is missing in action, things really being to change. Both Courtney and Aunt Mary Lee seem to lose their zest for living. They lose their appetite and Courtney’s grades go down in school. And then Courtney does the unexpected – she asks Margaret Ann if she can speak with her about a problem. It seems Aunt Mary Lee has been crying in bed at night ever since the news came about her husband and Courtney can’t get any sleep. This, she tells Margaret Ann, is why she is failing in school. And Margaret Ann really does the unthinkable – she invites Courtney to share her room from now on. This is truly a turning point in their relationship, but hardly the end of the story.

Homefront is a well-written, believable story. The beauty of it lies not in the story of Margaret Ann and Courtney, but really in the description of everyday life in this small American community and how the war impacts the people living there. Margaret Ann is the narrator and her descriptions and observations are sharp, despite the fact that, in the beginning of the story, she can lapse into a somewhat whiny, self-absorbed voice when talking about herself. In fact, I almost put this book down because of Margaret Ann’s self-pitying attitude, but I stuck with it and I am so glad I did.

Gewaltney takes the reader on a journey starting just before the United States entered World War II all the way to the end of the war in Homefront.  In this way, she has given the reader a wide window through which to observe the immediate and gradual changes in life due to the war and how people adjusted to them. But it is not always a picture of unflinching sacrifice for the war, sometimes people were asked to make sacrifices that were really not welcomed or that they just simple resented. After all, a true picture of anything would include the positive as well as the negative elements. Homefront is, then, a sad, funny, tragic and moving portrayal of an American family in wartime.

There are not as many books written about the American home front as there are about the English and European home fronts, making this is a realistic and welcomed addition to that particular theme in World War II fiction for young readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 10-14.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

Monday, June 6, 2011

If I Should Die before I Wake by Han Nolan

Hilary Burke, 16, is an angry girl. She is angry at her mother for not being there for her while she was a child. And she is angry at her father for dying when she was 5. Hilary blames his death on his Jewish boss, believing that he skimped on construction material causing the building her father worked in to collapse. So she is angry at all Jews and has focused it on her Jewish neighbors including their son, Simon Schulmann, for being part of a happy, close family.

To deal with all this anger, Hilary joins a group of Neo-Nazis called the Great Warriors. But then, irony of ironies, Hilary is almost fatally injured in a motorcycle crash with her Neo-Nazi boyfriend, Brad, and ends up in a Jewish hospital. Now, unable to speak or move, she is at the mercy of her own mind, and the only thing she can see is the face of an older woman looking at her.

Suddenly, in the midst of her angry internal anti-Semitic tirade, Hilary feels herself spinning backwards. When she stops spinning, she finds herself in Nazi-occupied Poland, where her name is Chana Bergman and she is somehow in possession of all of this girl’s memories. She is on her way to school with a best friend, when the two are stopped by Nazis and Hilary/Chana is forced to spend the day washing steps with her own brand new woolen tights. On her way home, she finds her beloved father has been suspended from a tree with his coat by a group of laughing Nazis. It is his punishment for not shoveling a pile of dirt fast enough. Hilary/Chana picks up the shovel and does the job, hoping the Nazis will let her father go, but in the end, they just shoot him to death anyway.

Hilary’s memories continue to swing between the past and present. In the present, Hilary continues her hateful rhetoric about Jews, in the past, as Chana, she is on the receiving end of this same hateful rhetoric from the Nazis. And each time she is in the present, she continues to only see the face of the elderly woman looking at her.

Slowly, Chana becomes the dominant memory for Hilary. Living at home with her are her grandparents, Bubbe and Zayde, her mother, older brother Jakub, sister Anya, 6, and the baby Nadzia. Rumor has reached the family that the Nazis are rounding up Jews and the family is preparing the give up Nadzia to a non-Jewish family that will protect her.

Shortly after Nadzia is gone, the family is rounded up and moved into one room in the Lodz Ghetto. The horrors of the ghetto are sometimes described by Chana in very graphic detail, as are the struggles of the family to stay alive. Sadly, Zadye eventually dies, then Chana’s mother and sister are rounded up for deportation and we never hear about them again. Jakub, who has gotten involved in smuggling people out of the ghetto, eventually helps Chana and Bubbe escape, but Chana is recognized by an old schoolmate, who thinks that turning her in will get her better treatment.

Chana and Bubbe are interrogated by the Nazis trying to find out who they got their illegal papers from, but neither one breaks. Eventually, they both end up in Auschwitz.

Yes, you do find out who the older woman is that Hilary keeps seeing and the story does have a bit of a surprise ending, which has already been ‘spoiled’ online, but I don’t read any reviews about books until I have finished reading them. Even so, I have to confess, it wasn’t a hard ending to figure out before I was halfway through the book, yet it still doesn’t detract from the story of Chana and the novel’s impact.

I found this book to have an interesting premise by adding the Neo-Nazi element. Hilary wasn’t really a Neo-Nazi at heart, but it shows how easily a person can be drawn into something like that when they don’t feel there is anywhere else to turn and they are made to feel important to the cause. Often, it is really no different then the way children were drawn into the Hitler Youth in 1930s Germany. And although this book may feel a little dated since we don’t hear much about Neo-Nazis anymore, but don’t be fooled by that – they are still out there.

Some people have compared If I Should Die before I Wake to The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. I have not read this book yet, because I thought the movie was so awful, I was turned off to it, but do plan to read very soon. I suspect the real similarity is the time travel back to Nazi-occupied Poland.

All in all, I found this to be a truly worthwhile novel and would highly recommend it, though maybe not to middle grade readers, or even for that matter, to immature YA age readers because of the disturbing, graphic descriptions.

If I Should Die before I Wake won the following well-deserved honors:
1995 International Reading Association/Children's Book Council Book Award
1995 New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
1999 A YALSA Popular Paperback for Young Adults

This book is recommended for readers age 13 and up.
This novel was purchased for my personal library.

More information on the Lodz Ghetto can be found at Jewish Virtual Library

More information on Auschwitz can be found at PBS Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State and any number of other responsible websites.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Update: 48 Hour Book Challenge

This is it - I'm finished, but nowhere near 48 hours.  I took Mother Reader's advice and decided to punt on going to the library because a YA novel is just what I need.  I will just go during the week.  Besides, it is often I have the luxury of just reading.

7:20 AM -12:00  Finished Lavender Laughs in the Chalet School by Elinor Brent-Dyer 4 hours 40 minutes

1:05 PM - 7:00 PM Finished Homefront by Doris Gwaltney  5 hours 55 minutes

Sunday Total: 10 hours 35 minutes

Overall Total: 30 hours 19 minutes

Thanks to Mother Reader for hosting the 6th Annual 48 Hour Book Challenge.  I am already looking forward to next years.

Sunday Funnies #2: Charles M. Schulz pays homage to D-Day

Monday, June 6th is D-Day, the day the Allies stormed the beach at Normandy, finally entering France, a major turning point in their ultimate victory.  (see my post on Remember D-Day: the Plan, the Invasion, Survivor Stories by Ronald J. Drez)

Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, was a veteran himself and always made it a point to honor his fellow vets whenever the occasion called for it.  Here are his 1994 strips for D-Day, starring my muse, Snoopy. You can click each one to make it easier to read.

Sunday, June 6, 1994
Monday, June 7, 1994
Tuesday, June 8, 1994
Wednesday, June 9, 1994
Thursday, June 10, 1994
Friday, June 11, 1994

Update: 48 Hour Book Challenge

6:15 AM - 7:00 AM Finished If I Should Die Before I Wake 45 minutes

7:30 AM – 11:30 AM read Homefront 4 hours

12:15 PM – 3:27 PM read library book in library called Over Here! New York City During World War II by Lorraine B. Diehl 3 hours 12 minutes

4:15 PM – 4:30 PM read there beginning of A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh & Dorothy L. Sayers (a Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane Mystery) Should I check it out? Can’t decide. 15 minutes

4:33 PM – 5:45 PM reading very boring psychology study (the real reason I am here) 1 hour 12 minutes

7:00 PM – 7:20PM reading Lady Lazarus, but not realty engaging with it 20 minutes

7:30 PM – 11:30 stopped reading Lady Lazarus, started reading a Chalet School book 4 hours

Saturday Total: 12 hours 84 minutes

Overall Total: 19 hours 84 minutes

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Update: 48 Hour Book Challenge

I was so tired by the time I finally stopped reading last night, I just went to sleep. 
I started reading If I should die before I wake at 7:00 PM and stopped 2:00 AM for a total of 7 reading hours, and I am almost fininshed.  So far, it is an interesting novel and I wll have a complete post on it soon.  I envy people who can skim a book, but I have never been able to do that.
Well,  upward and onward!  There is reading to be done.

Friday Total: 7 hours

Friday, June 3, 2011

48 Hour Book Challenge

Mother Reader is hosting her 6th Annual 48 Hour Book Challenge from 7:00 PM Friday June 3rd to 7:00 AM Monday June 6th.  The basic premise is to read for a 48 hour period with this time.  At first, I didn't think I could do this, because I knew I would be working most of Saturday and Sunday.  Then I realized I would be working on some research in the library and, really, I would just be reading.  The challenge is based on amount of time spent reading, not number of pages, so if I can count my research reading, as well as some novels, it seems to me that should work.

The books I have chosen for my own reading are
1- If I should die before I wake by Han Nolan
2- Homefront by Boris Gwaltney
3- Lady Lazarus by Michele Lang

Not as long a list as many participants, but that's OK.  Good luck to everyone this weekend.

Coming Attractions: The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

When the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it may have brought an end to World War II, but it also ushered in the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Suddenly, countries that had been allies during the war became enemies and it didn't take long for these enemies to convince themselves that atomic bombs (atomic fission bombs) weren’t enough, so they began working on the more powerful H- bombs (hydrogen fusion bombs.) And all across the world, as nuclear panic increased, students were required to practice “duck and cover” drills, as though your school desk would save you from radioactive fallout (little known, but interesting fact: in NYC students were issued dog tags because of the nuclear threat, in case someone survived and could identify them.  I don’t know about the rest of the country.)

All of this is brought to the fore in The Apothecary by Maile Meloy, her soon to be released novel based on the Cold War and Soviet testing of an H-bomb. The story begins in 1952, when Janie Scott, 14, is told by her parents that they must move from sunny warm Los Angeles, California to London, England. The reason is so that her parents, who write for television, can avoid being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and incriminating some of their friends who are suspected Communists.

The move is immediate, before passports can be confiscated by the US government and the next thing she knows, Janie has landed in post war austerity London, in a flat with no hot water, no heat and not enough blankets. She and her father immediately go over to the apothecary to buy some hot water bottles. While there, the apothecary, Mr. Burrows, gives Janie an herb mixture for homesickness.  It seems to help, but not nearly as much as the ensuing adventure.

The next day at school, during a “duck and cover” drill, Janie is immediately drawn to the one boy who refuses to get under the lunchroom table. On her way home, she sees this boy in the apothecary’s shop, arguing with the kindly Mr. Burrows. The boy turns out to be Benjamin Burrows, his son. Benjamin and Janie meet on the Underground that afternoon, when he notices her following him. The two become immediate friends and, their shared adventure begins when Benjamin’s father is kidnapped, leaving his son with the responsibility of protecting a book called the Pharmacopoeia, a collection of magical potions collected and handed down for centuries by each generation of the Burrows family. And there is no shortage of shady characters that seem trustworthy but who really just want to get their hands on the Pharmacopoeia, and there is no shortage of shady characters who might just be the very people that Benjamin and Janie need trust – but sometimes it is hard for them to tell the difference.

Along the way, Benjamin and Janie meet Pip, a London street urchin who knows how to pick a lock, how to slip away from authorities and how to escape Soviet spies in feats of daring do. The three of them embark on a shared adventure trying to stop the Soviets from testing an H-bomb on an island near northern Norway, called Nova Zembla** and that is somehow tied to the Pharmacopoeia.

The Apothecary is Maile Meloy’s first novel for young readers and, although the Cold War, the nuclear arms race and HUAC may not be things these readers are familiar with yet, there is enough explanation by Janie, the narrator, to move the story along without confusion. Still, a little glossary at the back wouldn’t have been a bad thing.   

At the beginning of the book, there is a note to the reader from Janie, dated 2011, who now feels that the events she is about to describe needs to be told now. This makes it a timely novel. Once more, we have been reminded of the danger of all things nuclear with the terrible meltdown of Japan’s nuclear reactors after the terrible earthquakes that struck that country in March 2011, though The Apothecary was probably finished before that.

It is interesting that the now 73 year old Janie relates the events of 1952 in the voice of a 14 year of girl, based on a diary she kept at the time.  I think this makes the novel more readable and appealing to young readers, moving the story along at a good clip and holding the reader’s attention. It certainly held mine, I read in one day because I couldn’t pull myself away.

Maile Meloy at her book
signing at BEA 2011
This was a fun book to read.  The fall of Communism in the Soviet Union in 1991 essentially brought an end to all those great spy stories that came out of the Cold War.  Now, we have a new take on that for a new generation of readers and, though maybe not as sophisticated as, say, a James Bond novel, this definitely has opened up a new area for kids books and it works.  The Apothecary will be released in October 2011 and I highly recommend this novel. It is both entertaining and informative.

This novel is recommended for readers age 10-14.
This book was acquired as an advance galley at the BookExpoAmerica 2011.

** The Soviet Union did test a 58 megaton thermonuclear bomb on an island called Novaya Zemlya, just north of Norway, in 1961. Something really scary – more than 2,000 nuclear tests were carried out between 1945 and 1998 worldwide. And if you have detected a bit of an anti-nuclear stance on my part, your instincts are correct.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

From the Archives #11: Sons of the Dragon by Phyllis Ayer Sowers

Like Pearl S. Buck, Phyllis Ayer Sowers spent much of her life living in China and other Asian countries and has written several books for children set in these countries. Sons of the Dragon was written in 1942. It is basically about how the Second Sino-Japanese War, began in 1937, affected lives of two families, but actual story begins in a few years earlier.

The novel follows two mains characters who come from similar backgrounds, but who experience the Second Sino-Japanese War in different but intertwined ways. Moonflower, 14, lives in the walled ancestral home of the Ching family and Wu Liang, 18, who is the son of the family Wu, the rival of the Ching’s in Chun-ko, in central China. Liang no longer lives at home after joining the Chinese army of General Chiang Kai-shek.

Though the book begins with a happy occasion, the marriage of Moonflower’s older sister Lotus, talk of war has already filtered into the isolated lives of the Ching family, yet they choose to ignore it and continue their quiet lives behind the walls of their estate.

After Lotus leaves to live with her husband and his family, as custom dictates, word comes that Eddie Ching, Moonflower’s older brother, will be returning home from his studies in Shanghai for a visit. Eddie, now quite Westernized, is also full of talk of war and criticism of General Chiang’s pre-1937 policy of co-operation with the Japanese.

Three more quiet years pass in Chun-ko, and Lotus comes to visit, to tell the family that she is moving to Nanking because of her husband’s high position in the Central Government of Chiang Kai-Shek there. Soon after, Moonflower travels to Shanghai with her family to meet a possible husband. They stay in the International Quarter of Shanghai, but the trip is cut short when the Battle of Shanghai begins in August 1937. The Ching family return to Chun-ko, only to discover that there has also been bombing there. By now, Eddie Ching has left school and joined the Chinese Army. He eventually is shot by a Japanese soldier and dies. His family doesn't receive this devasting news until much later.
Wu Liang is also in the Chinese army and, like Eddie Ching, he is angry and impatient with General Chiang’s attitude towards the Japanese, but becomes even angrier when he learns that Peiping (now Beijing) is being bombed by them. In the army, he is engaged in committing act of sabotage against the advancing Japanese whenever possible. While carrying secret documents by plane to the government in Nanking, Liang finds himself near home when the plane crashes. He discoveres that the Wu ancestral home has been burned to the ground by the Japanese, with no survivors. He runs into Moonflower and there is an instant attraction, but he must leave to deliver the documents he is carrying to Chiang Kai-Shek in Nanking.

As the war progresses, more bad news arrives from Lotus, who writes that she and her family are being evacuated to Hankow, since the Japanese have threatened to destroy Nanking after taking it over and in December 1937, this threat does result in the massacre of Nanking.

As the fortunes of the Ching family begin to diminish and the Japanese move closer, they are forced to flee Chun-ko in a small boat with the help of Liang. They end up living outside the walls of a city with Moonflower’s selfish, sneaky sister in law, Silver Breeze, who appears to be working for the Japanese (yes, I know, who is Silver Breeze?  She apparently was married to an older Ching brother who died before the novel began.)

This can be a complicated novel, particularly for those of us not as familiar with the Second Sino-Japanese War as we probably should be. It certainly isn’t quite as interesting as Lisa See’s more recent Shanghai Girls, in which much of the action also occurs in 1930s China.  I found the timeline in the beginning of Sons of the Dragon somewhat confusing and the flowery, often metaphorical language seemed unnatural. At one point, for example, Liang is asked the time, looks at his western-style watch and replies “Nearly the Hour of the Rat. That train is as slow as a lame donkey” (pg 39) I thought the language was a stereotypical portrayal of the way Chinese people spoke based on Western expectations. 

Prior to World War II, China was a very patrilineal society and the names of the characters indicate this. Grown male characters names were simply Romanized versions of their Chinese name, like Wu Lliang or Ching Li, Moonflower’s father. The female character names and any young boys were direct translations of the character with no Romanization, so you names like Moonflower, Lotus, Small Perfection (the son of Lotus), or Little Worthless. One would never call an adult male Big Perfection.

The novel is illustrated throughout with both black and white pen and ink drawings and a few color illustrations.  They were done by the author's sister Margaret Ayer, a writer and illustrator in her own right. 
This is from the inside cover of Sons of the Dragon.

For today’s reader, historically, it is an interesting look at this part of China’s past. Culturally, however, I am afraid there may be many inaccuracies in the portrayal of Chinese society.

See Chiang Kai-Shek for more information on his life.
See Second Sino-Japanese War 1937 for a more historical perspective on this war, including a very helpful map.

This book is recommended for readers 13 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

This is book 1 of my East and SouthEast Asia Challenge hosted by Violet Crush
This is book 8 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews